- Associated Press - Thursday, March 5, 2015

PHOENIX (AP) - Hundreds of parents, teachers and students protested education cuts at the state Capitol on Thursday evening as Senate and House appropriations committees mull a budget plan.

As the protests unfolded, a key senator said there just aren’t the votes to pass the $9.1 billion budget negotiated between Republican House and Senate leaders and Gov. Doug Ducey.

Sen. Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, said at least five of 17 Senate Republicans do not support the deal. That’s more than enough to block passage.

“The votes aren’t here,” Pierce said as protesters chanted “No more cuts” as they passed the entrance to the Senate where he stood. “I told the governor the votes aren’t here.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee began moving the package of bills that fund the $9.1 billion spending plan at mid-afternoon, hearing testimony mainly from groups that would be hurt by the plan. The bills were passing on 5-3 party-line votes as darkness fell.

The House Appropriations Committee started its hearings after 5 p.m., four hours late and a sign that there may be problems getting the plan out of the House as well.

Thursday’s developments came a day after Senate President Andy Biggs and House Speaker David Gowan announced a deal with Ducey that re-jiggered major cuts he proposed to fill a budget hole approaching $150 million - not counting more than $300 million a judge has ordered the state to pay to schools this budget year.

Ducey had proposed cutting $75 million, or 10 percent, from the state’s universities. He also wanted to increase overall K-12 spending by $11 million while make a whole series of other cuts and raids of special funds to fill the budget gap. Those include cuts that have upset counties, health care providers, child advocacy leaders and government agencies.

Biggs and Gowan negotiated bigger cuts for universities, totaling $104 million, or 14 percent of current funding. They also added more money for K-12 schools, but they maintained Ducey’s plan to force cuts to support services.

Those cuts were the genesis for Thursday’s protests, which included Lisa Olson, a mother of five from Mesa who is a substitute teacher.

“I’m angry. I feel like the last seven years they’ve stolen from our children - $1.7 billion has been taken from our kids and from our future as a collective society,” Olson said. “I think it’s been incredibly short-sighted, all of the Legislatures leading up to this point, to think that we don’t need education.”

At the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, Chairman Don Shooter of Yuma listened to a parade of advocates pleading for their causes.

Dana Naimark of the Children’s Action Alliance decried big cuts to the state’s new Child Safety Department.

“This budget plan as a whole really puts kids at risk for more and more neglect,” Naimark said, noting that it takes $9 million to handle growing caseloads and $11 million to deal with a backlog of cases. “To remove that funding makes absolutely no sense.”

Shooter said he understood the angst, but said the yearly budget battle at the Legislature needs to be fixed. “We can’t run a business this way. We can’t keep doing this every year,’ he said.

Pierce, a former Senate president himself, said he told the governor about his concerns.

“I had a nice discussion with the governor, and there’s a lot that needs to be done,” he said. “It’s not just education. There’s a lot of things that need to be fixed. And they know it.”

Besides cuts to universities, community colleges and K-12 education that have brought protests, Pierce is getting calls from many other groups who feel the new budget plan cuts too deep.

“They didn’t like the first budget that was put out, but they could deal with it,” Pierce said. “And this one they can’t hardly deal with it. There’s a lot of problems.”

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